In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marxism

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International Relations Marxism
Gareth Dale
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0041


Although Marxism has had a good deal to say about historically evolving structures that transcend national borders, the relationship between Marxists and the academic discipline of international relations (IR) has not been straightforward. Constituted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the third quarter of the 19th century as a critical and holistic methodology, Marxism maintains that political relationships are conditioned by, and can only be comprehended in their connection to, modes of surplus extraction. By contrast, IR, arising half a century later, manifests the distinctions between economics and politics, between domestic and foreign, and between world economy and world order. The key terms in Marxist IR discourse, historically, have been “imperialism,” “dependency,” “hegemony,” and “empire.” One of the defining periods in the development of Marxist thought on international relations occurred immediately before and during World War I, when “imperialism” emerged as the master term, a place it yielded, following World War II, to “dependency.” In the 1990s and the 2000s, however, an interest in imperialism returned, although the term competed for primacy with “hegemony,” favored especially by authors from the world-systems and neo-Gramscian schools, and with “empire,” a term given a distinctive twist in the best-selling book of that name. There are several distinguishing features of Marxist approaches to international relations. First, they subject prevailing categories, such as “anarchy” or the “balance of power,” to critique, seeking to uncover their historical and sociological foundations. Second, as a materialist philosophy, Marxism accords explanatory primacy to a society’s “mode of production” as the key to understanding its systems of power and belief. Third, Marxist approaches tend to conceive of society dialectically, as a totality whose contradictions yield continual change. Contradictions within historical processes are conceptualized at high levels of abstraction (e.g., between productive forces and a particular configuration of production relations) as well as in the form of real historical struggles. A final defining feature of Marxist thought is that the purpose of understanding the international system is wedded to that of its radical transformation.

Textbooks and Readers

There are no textbooks geared specifically to the teaching of Marxist international relations (IR), but a wide variety of student-friendly books and book chapters fills the gap. These include chapters in standard IR textbooks, such as Burchill, et al. 2001, Rupert 2007a, and Rupert 2007b, which provide accessible introductions to the subject. The closest approximation to textbooks are, on theories of imperialism, Anthony Brewer’s classic survey (Brewer 1990) and, on international political economy, Bill Dunn’s Global Political Economy (Dunn 2009). A number of collections of 19th- and 20th-century Marxist writings on imperialism and dependency exist; the most comprehensive and/or judicious collections are Chilcote 2000 and Cain and Harrison 2001. Alison Ayers has edited a notable collection of essays on neo-Gramscian IR theory (Ayers 2008). Finally, for a window onto 21st-century debates on Marxist IR, the indispensable reader is Anievas 2010.

  • Anievas, Alexander. Marxism and World Politics: Contesting Global Capitalism. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Fourteen essays by scholars involved in the major debates of the 2000s. Themes include the renaissance of historical materialism in IR theory; geopolitics of capitalist modernity; relationship between capitalism and the international system; Gramsci, passive revolution, and transnational capital; uneven and combined development.

  • Ayers, Alison J., ed. Gramsci, Political Economy, and International Relations Theory: Modern Princes and Naked Emperors. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Edited collection of critical reflections upon neo-Gramscian theory, including essays by Alfredo Saad-Filho and Mustapha Kamal Pasha.

  • Brewer, Anthony. Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1990.

    The best-known English-language textbook on imperialism. Panoramic survey of the field. Includes excurses on non-Marxist theories, such as “free trade imperialism.”

  • Burchill, Scott, Richard Devetak, Andrew Linklater, Matthew Paterson, Christian Reus-Smit, and Jacqui True. Theories of International Relations. 4th ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    Includes chapter on Marxism by Andrew Linklater; also Richard Devetak on Marxian currents within “critical theory.”

  • Cain, Peter J., and Mark Harrison, eds. Imperialism: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies. 3 vols. London: Routledge, 2001.

    The most comprehensive compilation of writings on imperialism, largely but not exclusively Marxist. Vol. 1: Marx’s journalistic writings on India; excerpts from Kautsky, Hilferding, Lenin, and Bukharin. Vol. 2: excerpts from dependency and world-systems theorists, including Immanuel Wallerstein and Samir Amin. Vol. 3: cultural critiques; of only tangential relevance to IR.

  • Chilcote, Ronald H., ed. Imperialism: Theoretical Directions. Amherst, NY: Humanities, 2000.

    Student-friendly reader, including sections on legacies of Marx and Lenin, dependency theory, and essential texts by Paul Baran, Amilcar Cabral, A. G. Frank, Fernando Enrique Cardoso, and Prabhat Patnaik.

  • Dunn, Bill. Global Political Economy: A Marxist Critique. London: Pluto, 2009.

    International political economy (IPE) textbook. Comprehensive but concise. Surveys global political economy, with sections on the various IPE theories, including “critical IPE” and Marxism; also sections on international financial institutions and global governance.

  • Rupert, Mark. “Marxism.” In International Relations Theory for the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction. Edited by Martin Griffiths, 35–46. London: Routledge, 2007a.

    A short introduction by an eminent scholar from the neo-Gramscian school of IR.

  • Rupert, Mark. “Marxism and Critical Theory.” In International Relations: Discipline and Diversity. 2d ed. Edited by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, 148–165. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007b.

    Another short introduction by this eminent scholar from the neo-Gramscian school of IR.

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